Plant This! : A Conversation with Jessica Henry & EmmoLei Sankofa

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Photo by EmmoLei Sankofa

 

Plant This! (motion media artist Jessica Henry and sound designer EmmoLei Sankofa’s latest work on display at Fresh Exhibitions gallery) is a collaborative work that undoubtedly inspires collaboration. Born out of Henry’s desire to effect positive change on a wide scale by starting at a local level, the installation’s composite parts (a sculpture made of trash, video projections and beautiful sound by Sankofa) calmly ask viewers to think about their personal connection to the waste they create. Is it too soon to say that this duo has produced one of the most visually and sonically interesting shows of the summer?

Plant This! was inspired by the documentary Farm for the Future and has been in development for over a year — ever since Jessica Henry found her inspiration during an “Art of the 20th Century” class at SCAD. Henry’s beliefs in permaculture, organic food and social/environmental responsibility have manifested not only in the piece, but also in her upcoming supplemental events: a community gardening class and a community potluck. She says, “I’m trying to encourage people to live more sustainable lives. It’s not necessarily about eating organic or growing food instead of lawns… It’s also really about getting the community back together.” Henry doesn’t expect people to switch over to an organic-only diet or to sell their cars tomorrow — she’s much more realistic than that: “I just wanted to inspire people to do what they can, not to try to take on everything, but to figure out what small part they can do that makes them feel better and contributes to the earth and to humanity,” she says.

For her part, EmmoLei Sankofa has provided a wonderfully lush soundscape, creating a gallery environment that is both meditative and engaging. Finding inspiration in George Prochnik’s In Pursuit of Silence (a study of noise & silence as equal and opposing forces) and utilizing natural elements like water, Sankofa’s music elevates the installation to a place of contemplative self-awareness. Without it, the sensitive topics presented by Henry may have felt too heavy. If Henry’s goal is, as she says, to linger on solutions rather than the problem at hand, Sankofa’s sound offers an emotional grounding onto which viewers can grasp as they think about their relationship to the work and its larger environmental questions.

Plant This! is on view at Fresh Exhibitions until Saturday, June 14 (1 – 4pm). To meet Jessica Henry and start consciously engaging in the Savannah community, attend her Community Pot Luck in Forsyth Park this evening. Click here for more information.

Read a transcript of my full conversation with Jessica & EmmoLei below.

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Kayla Goggin: Can you both tell me a little about your backgrounds?

Jessica Henry: Well, my interest in art, sustainability and culture really started with a foreign exchange I did when I was 16. I went to Denmark as part of my junior year of high school and had the opportunity to live with 3 different host families. I think that really influenced me since I got to be submerged into a different culture. It could’ve not worked out for me but it ended up being the best experience ever. I had so many friends there. That’s also where I started getting interested in sustainability. My third host family owned windmills and my host mom was very active in that. I think that’s really where it started for me… Eating fresh food and having the opportunity to be away from Western culture.

KG: How long were you there?

JH: A year. It took a while to recover from the culture shock of coming back, which was harder on me than I thought it would be. So I took a year to find myself and my place again back in the USA. At that time, I was in an independent study school so I was only required to be in class once a week for one hour. I had the whole week to be doing what I wanted, so I took culinary classes, painting classes and I started making a lot of jewelry (wire-wrapping). I knew I was really into art, but at that point I didn’t have the confidence to say I wanted to make it my career. I had heard the whole starving artist thing and it really intimidated me. I wanted to go to school for sociology, political science, business, jewelry.. I really wanted everything. 

        So I got to SCAD and I was doing my foundation classes and I loved them, but I was always under so much anxiety about what my major was gonna be. At this point, now that I’ve graduated, I see how irrelevant [a major] is in a design school because you learn to design, you learn to think about all these things. For example, it was so amazing to collaborate with Emily because she offered me so much insight about my trash sculpture and even as I was working on my video she offered ideas on how to draw people in; she did so much more than just the sound. It’s been one of my favorite collaborations for that. When you get a strong collaborator, then they’re with you for the whole thing – they’re not just doing a little small part of that. 

EmmoLei Sankofa: Kind of hard to follow that! I started out playing alto saxophone [in third grade]. When I got to sixth grade, the band director said, “Sign up for whatever you play.” I knew that if he knew I played saxophone, he’d make me play saxophone. So I said, “I play drums.” 

        I got to the first day of band class and I didn’t know anything. Like, nothing at all. And it was intimidating because I was one of the only girls too. It’s a male dominated instrument. So I got in there and I was holding my sticks wrong and I was doing everything I could to not mess up and reveal that I was new, but it came out anyway. I spent a year learning and I told myself, ‘I’ll come back and be better than everybody.’ So I spent the summer at this band camp called Precision; I was the youngest student there because it was really for high school students. It’s really true [what they say] about being in an environment where there are people who are better than you: it forces you to rise to the occasion. So I came back and everybody was like, “What have you been doing all summer?” And I was like, “Practicing.” The people who were better than me or older than me had gotten comfortable where they were and just to get to their level I had to work so hard.

        In middle school I played drums and became section leader. In high school I played drums too and became section major, then drum major. I’ve always done music. I played drums in church. I’ve really never worked a job outside of music or audio.

JH: Wow. That’s amazing.

ES: I’m fortunate enough to have been able to do that. When all my peers in high school were working in the mall, I was getting paid to play drums. I actually started composing music in high school. Kids make beats and stuff so I started doing that. When I got to college I thought, “OK, maybe I’ll be an engineer and maybe that’ll help me get into the production side of the music industry.” I really liked that and I learned a lot, but I was still really interested in making music. A lot of my peers weren’t really making the things that I liked and my taste was kinda abstract so I just didn’t really fit musically. I started thinking, “Is this really for me? Some people say, ‘This is good,’ but then everybody else is like, ‘What is this?’”

         I had a friend who was in theater and she told me that my music might be better for film, so I started doing sound for theater at our school. Come time for graduation I knew I wanted to make music but I was afraid to go out into the world and make art… for what?

        I heard from a friend that the program [at SCAD] was really good. Since being here, I’ve realized that this is where I was supposed to be. I really flourished in this environment because it allowed me to explore my music in different mediums and still do what I wanted to do. It worked out. So that’s how I got here.

KG: And then you guys met each other.

ES: It was so weird how we met.

KG: How did you guys meet?

JH: Did I not just contact you on Facebook? I always joke with her that she’s become famous in the “mome” [Motion Media] department. I must’ve been a junior at that point and I saw her work in a Rick 430 project – a very abstract senior project. I really loved the visuals but I understood that the sound was an equal part of the piece. Everything was very fluid, everything worked together. I heard that and I was like, “I need to know who did that,” and found out it was EmmoLei. At that point I didn’t know her at all so I messaged her on Facebook. The idea for my project came.. It was a really long process. At that time I basically just had a seed, knew what I wanted the project to be about and the values it would have; I was developing it for about a year. 

KG: So at that time, what was the idea for the project? I’m trying to get a feel for how it became what it is today.

JH: It began in my 20th century art history class with Capri Rosenberg. The eco art section of that class really inspired me. [Rosenberg] showed us this documentary called Farm for the Future – I always go back to that. That’s really what started this project for me and probably my future career. This Irish woman [Rebecca Hosking], about 40 years old, her grandparents had a farm in Ireland. She started working on the documentary because she saw their reliance on fossil fuels. The amount of fossil fuels we’re using basically means that we’re going to run out and food supply is not going to be available if we keep doing what we’re doing. This was the first part of the documentary (only about 5 minutes long) and it was really serious. What I loved is that it was so short, it told you what it needed to tell you and then it moved on to talking about the solutions you may not have heard about. It started talking about permaculture and I really hadn’t heard this word. In the documentary, [Rebecca Hosking] goes to England to meet with a famous permaculturist [Patrick Whitefield] and he has an entire forest that is a permaculture forest. 

ES: He started it himself?

JH: Yeah. To anyone else it would look like a forest that just “happened” but when he takes you in there he knows each plant and how it’s benefiting the plant next to it. The trees are providing nitrogen to the berries, etc. 

        [Whitefield] talks about other farmers who experimented with different species of grass, because when people use regular grass,their cows will tear up it up and entire acres will be useless. So they started experimenting with a different species of grass that will web itself together to create a stronger bond to keep it from being torn up as easily. Thing after thing in this documentary was blowing my mind. I was like, “Why isn’t everybody doing this? If we have all these solutions then why are we still using fossil fuels?” I was blown away so I decided I needed to do something like that. I had to figure out how I could take motion media and do something like that but different.

        What I wanted to take from that documentary was the positivity. I’ve watched things like Food Inc., but all the feedback I’ve heard from people… They say things like, “I was so horrified. I couldn’t even think about it anymore.” That struck a chord with me. If we’re seeing these documentaries and people are getting so shocked and horrified and sad that they’re just getting frozen because they have no power over companies like Monsanto.. When you learn those facts for the first time it really is kind of petrifying and you kind of don’t know what do. So I wanted to not do that. I wanted to take what I got from that documentary and give people the feeling that I felt: that ‘yes-I-wanna-figure-out-how-I-can-do-that’ feeling. So when I showed it to EmmoLei I had that idea, but that was it. I didn’t have any visuals yet; I just knew I wanted to strike this feeling.

KG: So that was your introduction to it?

ES: Yeah. And I said yes because I love working with different people, it sounded like a cool idea and was different from what I had been doing. I like challenging myself and coming up with different solutions for different kinds of projects. So time went by and she was working on it. Fast forward to a few months back, maybe the beginning of spring…

JH: Yeah, it would’ve been spring break when we really got together and I had the process book.

ES: We met and I was just trying to figure out where my piece would fit into this. I was freaking out for the longest time because i didn’t want to let her down. One night she finally sent me the visuals for it, so I looked at them and after that I didn’t look at them again. So one night I got home, turned the lights out and just started making [my piece]. I didn’t look at any of the visuals or anything, I just made it and it came outta thin air. The funny part is she didn’t even really hear it until the day of.

JH: I didn’t hear it until the opening reception for the installation.

KG: Wow. So you had a lot of faith in her.

JH: I just want to clarify, that it is so not like me.. I’ll be honest, i’m a control freak. I really want to know all of the elements. If it had been anybody except EmmoLei, I don’t think that would would have flown.

ES: And I mean, I was really surprised because I was thinking the whole time, “She’s not asking me what’s happening?”

JH: I kind of consciously did that. I really wanted [the project] to be done way before it was done. I wanted it to be done with plenty of time to give her a finished project, but that just didn’t happen. In essence I think that made the collaboration stronger. I have so much faith in her design and her ability. When my part was done, I thought it’d be magical to wait and see [the two parts] come together like anybody else would.

ES: That was the first project I had done like that as well.

JH: I gave her suggestions – I wanted it to be very ambient but I didn’t want it to be like you see a bird flying and then you hear a bird flying. I didn’t want it to go with the piece that way. It was perfect. I remember the first moment I saw it..

KG: So you didn’t want it to be super literal?

JH: Yeah. I told her I wanted it to be really organic and fluid. That’s really all I gave her to work with.

        I’m intrigued by the psychology of installation. I really wanted people to interpret the piece for themselves. I didn’t want to tell anybody anything. I felt like that’s what Food Inc. and other documentaries were doing, they were really putting a burden on people and I know from personal experience that some people can’t afford to buy all organic, etc. but I do know that everybody can do something. So I just wanted to inspire people to do what they can, not to try to take on everything, but to figure out what small part they can do that makes them feel better and contributes to the earth and to humanity. I just wanted people to experience something and get a feeling, not a message if that makes sense.

KG: You guys were really successful in creating an environment. When you were building the sound piece did you incorporate any organic sounds into it?

ES: As far as natural elements and stuff like that?

KG: Yeah.

ES: I started out the piece with rain. What I thought I was going to do was – [Jessica] had a potluck and I went and recorded the sound of the environment but I thought that was too cliche. I couldn’t do that.

KG: To just have outdoor noise?

ES: Yeah, I knew I didn’t want to be predictable, so I just used a lot of elements that sounded like water. I kind of wanted to put people in an environment as if they were in like a shrine or something. I read this book called In Pursuit of Silence by George Prochnik where he visited monks. While reading that book I always thought of bells and things and how it would feel to be in an environment like that, so I tried to create that. I thought about that – bells, and water, and things that were calming to people’s spirit and how they would feel in that environment. I kind of wanted to put people in a trance. A lot of people came up to me [at the reception] and told me, “I just wanna stay in here.” 

        I really shouldn’t even expose this, haha –  but we manipulate people with sound design, with music: when you go see a film you hear music, but you never really acknowledge that it’s manipulating your emotions and telling you what to think about what you’re looking at. So when I’m making something I’m always keeping that in mind because good sound design is usually transparent. The people who are experiencing it… If they know it’s there, that means you didn’t really do your job well.

KG: I want to get back into the environmental side of this. Earlier, [Jessica] briefly got into the idea that you’re not so much asking someone to do something as asking them to just do anything. When you were making this you must have had some kind of problem in mind; what would the problem you’re trying to solve be?

JH: I don’t know if I would say that there’s any one problem. I guess I would say I’m trying to encourage people to live more sustainable lives. It’s not necessarily about eating organic or growing food instead of lawns.. It’s also really about getting the community back together. Even though I feel safe in my community, it doesn’t feel like a community. Everybody kind of keeps to themselves which struck me as weird because we’re all next to each other. When I would go on walks with my dog I would see all these signs that felt like they were keeping people out – beware of dog signs everywhere and people had signs alluding to whatever security systems they had. I started thinking about the messages you send to the people you live with – or near – and to me, i just feel like community has become a scary word for people. 

        I’m also having the community gardening event since I’m a big fan of community gardens. They allow you to not only have a a community food source, but you also to have a place to meet people and not feel afraid of your neighbor. 

KG: Where did all the trash come from?

JH: I collected it for about 6 months. I’m glad I had the idea that soon because I ended up not having enough! I really wanted to incorporate the trash sculptures into my projections because I wanted a contrast. I didn’t want to be negative, I didn’t want people to feel bad. I felt like doing the trash sculpture showed people a way to reduce and recycle but also reminded people of how much we waste.

KG: To wrap things up: what inspires you and where do you find inspiration?

ES: Honestly, I try to pull inspiration from everything around me. I like to wander a lot because you never know what you’ll stumble on. 

        Pharrell Williams is actually my favorite producer, musician.. I mean, the main reason I like him is because he does music but also dips into architecture, fashion, furniture design.. He does a lot of different things. He’s one of the artists now who’s really exploring something other than just music and he’s not afraid to do stuff that other people aren’t doing. He’s, like, the guy that I wanna surpass. The world inspires me. It should inspire everybody. It’s big, it’s small, it’s there, so while we’re here we should take advantage of it.

KG: Well said. So what’s next for you after this?

ES: The sky. Upward. Move upward, progress always. I’ll keep you guys wondering.

KG: Keep us posted too. What about you, Jessica?

JH: Pretty much what EmmoLei said. I try to take inspiration from everything as well. To reverse the question, what I try to not rely on too heavily for inspiration is the internet. iI’s so easy to just go to Pintrest or Google Images and just look at whatever pops into your head. I really like to start with words. I like to do a lot of research and do a lot of reading. The reason i like to do that is because if you’re searching for visuals to inspire your visuals, you’re already going to be taking a lot from whatever you find. But when you’re creating in your head around words, [the idea] hasn’t blossomed yet and that was something I really struggled with with this project. Its meaning meant so much to me that for a while I almost didn’t want to come up with visuals because I didn’t want to taint it. For me, the concept is always so beautiful: the idea in its purest form before it becomes anything is exactly perfect. Once you put it into a video you start to water it down a little bit because all media is trying to do something, it’s biased in nature.

KG: So what’s next for you, Jessica?

JH: I’m gonna go with a little more clarity than “the sky”, haha. It all keeps going back to that documentary for me. I really want to throw myself into this; I’m really interested in sustainable design. I feel like that’s where the future is, otherwise there is no future.

Kayla Goggin

Author: Kayla Goggin

Kayla Goggin is the editor of the Savannah Art Informer.

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